A couple of weeks ago I had an irritant breakout reaction from testing a product, and I posted about it on Instagram. I’m still not 100% sure which product it was, but I used an anti-breakout routine that flattened my pimples in about 24 hours, and they were almost completely gone in around 3 days. I had a lot of requests to share my routine, and so here it is!
What sort of breakout is it?
First you need to work out the sort of breakout it is. And even before that, you need to sort out whether it’s purging or a breakout. Check out this post on purging vs breakouts first to see if it’s a good purge or a bad breakout.
Within breakouts, there are two main types: when a product clogs your pores, and when a product irritates your skin. If you’re unlucky, a product can do both, but if it’s just doing one then it’s a lot easier to fix.
Pore clogging breakouts:
- Happen from comedogenic products
- Usually from ingredients higher in the ingredient list, or a combination of ingredients
- Tend to happen more slowly (appear after a few days)
- Usually start with whiteheads (clogged pores – fleshy bumps under the skin), especially in areas where you usually get pimples (chin, forehead)
- Happen with irritating products
- Usually from ingredients low in the ingredient list, or an ingredient at a higher concentration than normal, or if combined with a penetration enhancing ingredient
- Tend to happen very quickly
- Usually give red, shallow pimples very quickly, often happen in areas where you don’t get pimples that often
Related Post: Video: Is My Skin Purging or Breaking Out?
Mine was clearly an irritant breakout. A whole flock of pimples appeared overnight. My pimples were very red and shallow with pus very close to the surface, and they went from zero to squeezable in less than 24 hours. They were also inflamed with the redness extending well away from the pus spots. I had pimples in places where I never got pimples, like on the side of my nose where the nosepads of glasses would normally sit, and between my nose and upper lip.
My Anti-Breakout Routine
For clearing up any breakouts, the best thing to do is to undo whatever caused it. Obviously, you need to stop using the product immediately. If you’re not sure which product caused the breakout, if you didn’t introduce your products one by one like you’re meant to (um yeah, I made that classic mistake this time…) then you should stop all the new ones.
Hopefully you have a “safe” cleanser, sunscreen and moisturiser on hand that you know your skin is OK with. They’re probably boring and not fancy and have short ingredients lists, but now is not the time for fancy. Preferably you want fragrance-free – even if your skin can normally handle fragrance, it’s best to avoid all irritants while your face is irritated, since it could react to things you’re normally fine with. Your cleanser should be as bland and boring as possible, preferably free of soap and SLS.
Related post: All About Cleansing & How to Choose a Gentle Cleanser
Use anti-irritants and gentle exfoliants
This next step requires a bit of caution. In addition to your usual routine, you might also want to add some actives in: anti-irritants and anti-inflammatories to help your skin calm down, and gentle exfoliants to clear out clogged pores. Unfortunately these actives can also cause more irritation if you’re not careful, hence the emphasis on gentle. A lot of anti-irrntants are also botanical, and in general botanicals have a higher change of being irritating since they contain a wide range of chemicals, grow microbes and go off more easily, and are more variable in their composition.
The best ingredient to use at this stage in my opinion is salicylic acid, also known as BHA (beta hydroxy acid). Salicylic acid is an exfoliant, and it’s anti-irritant (it’s a form of aspirin, an antiinflammatory drug), so it’s a multitasker, and multitaskers are nice at this point because we want to reduce the number of products we subject our poor inflamed skin to. It’s also effective at higher pH than AHAs – because it’s oil soluble, the free acid amount is less important and the ionised version will still penetrate into the skin, so you can avoid another source of irritation here.
Related post: Video: Why pH matters for AHAs and acids in skincare
Other helpful ingredients:
- Anti-irritants / anti-inflammatories: niacinamide, oatmeal extract, chamomile,
- Exfoliants: I’d recommend chemical exfoliants over physical exfoliants for breakouts. Glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, malic acid. I would go for the other AHAs over glycolic acid at this stage, since glycolic acid’s small size makes it more likely to irritate, although it depends on the formula of the product as well. You can also use very gentle physical exfoliation, like a peeling gel or a konjac sponge, but I personally don’t risk it, and I’m usually a big fan of physical exfoliation (more info in my Guide to Exfoliation)
Hydrocolloid bandages are always handy for flattening bumps. They’re particularly good for big, shallow pimples, which is exactly what I had.
Related post: How Do Hydrocolloid Bandages and Acne Patches Work?
Here’s the actual routine I used:
Salicylic acid: Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid, which I’ve used for almost 10 years with no issues.
AHA chemical exfoliant: Ultraceuticals Ultra Brightening Serum. This is a little strong and stingy, so I used this very sparingly.
Sunscreen: Ultraceuticals Ultra Protective Daily Moisturiser SPF 30+, since it’s a safe product for me (even though I have a giant backlog of sunscreens to trial!).
Hydrocolloid bandages: Cosrx Acne Pimple Master Patch
Don’t squeeze too much! Squeezing is irritating, so ideally you wouldn’t squeeze at all, but I know strict abstinence is impossible for most people, so I’m going for a harm reduction approach here.
Change your pillowcase, towels etc.: Just to be on the safe side
If you want to check which product caused the reaction, I’d recommend applying it to part of your face only the next time, so you have a comparison.
I usually go for benzoyl peroxide as an acne spot treatment, but it’s quite irritating so I avoid it for irritant breakouts.
What’s your go-to treatment for breakouts?
Some products were provided for editorial consideration, but this is my honest opinion. This post also contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and support Lab Muffin financially (at no extra cost to you), thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.